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Mortgage finance in pictures

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This graphic is from TheDeal.com (via Paul Kedrosky). Note they give the notional to net ratio for CDS as $62 to $2 trillion, or 30 to 1. That ratio is a good proxy for the complexity of the network of contracts and how difficult it will be to disentangle.

Written by infoproc

October 5, 2008 at 6:25 pm

Don’t blame the quants: Fannie edition

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This article in the Times gives some details about the collapse of Fannie Mae. It’s pretty clear that the quants at Fannie knew they were undercharging for risky loans, and that senior management knowingly pushed the firm into dangerous territory.

Fannie’s business: repackaging mortgages into collateralized securities. But it operated under political pressure to help low-income buyers achieve home ownership and under financial pressure to compete with investment banks getting aggressively into the mortgage securitization business.

NYTimes: …When Mr. Mudd arrived at Fannie eight years ago, it was beginning a dramatic expansion that, at its peak, had it buying 40 percent of all domestic mortgages.

…So Fannie constructed a vast network of computer programs and mathematical formulas that analyzed its millions of daily transactions and ranked borrowers according to their risk.

Those computer programs seemingly turned Fannie into a divining rod, capable of separating pools of similar-seeming borrowers into safe and risky bets. The riskier the loan, the more Fannie charged to handle it. In theory, those high fees would offset any losses.

With that self-assurance, the company announced in 2000 that it would buy $2 trillion in loans from low-income, minority and risky borrowers by 2010.

All this helped supercharge Fannie’s stock price and rewarded top executives with tens of millions of dollars. Mr. Raines received about $90 million between 1998 and 2004, while Mr. Howard was paid about $30.8 million, according to regulators. Mr. Mudd collected more than $10 million in his first four years at Fannie.

Take aggressive risks, or “get out of the company”:

…But Fannie’s computer systems could not fully analyze many of the risky loans that customers, investors and lawmakers wanted Mr. Mudd to buy. Many of them — like balloon-rate mortgages or mortgages that did not require paperwork — were so new that dangerous bets could not be identified, according to company executives.

Even so, Fannie began buying huge numbers of riskier loans.

In one meeting, according to two people present, Mr. Mudd told employees to “get aggressive on risk-taking, or get out of the company.”

In the interview, Mr. Mudd said he did not recall that conversation and that he always stressed taking only prudent risks.

Employees, however, say they got a different message.

“Everybody understood that we were now buying loans that we would have previously rejected, and that the models were telling us that we were charging way too little,” said a former senior Fannie executive. “But our mandate was to stay relevant and to serve low-income borrowers. So that’s what we did.”

I complained about Frankin Raines, who embroiled Fannie in a derivatives accounting scandal, back in 2004-5.

Mr. Raines and Mr. Howard, who kept most of their millions, are living well. Mr. Raines has improved his golf game. Mr. Howard divides his time between large homes outside Washington and Cancun, Mexico, where his staff is learning how to cook American meals.

Written by infoproc

October 4, 2008 at 9:55 pm

Buffet on the credit crisis

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Charlie Rose interview

Skeptics will claim he is talking his own book, with the recent GS and GE investments. But I agree with most of it. Buffet says that if he could take a 1 percent stake in the bailout (investing $7 billion), he would. He thinks the bailout will make money investing in distressed mortgage securities at current market prices.

“I love to buy distressed assets… I just don’t have $700B to do it with.” (At about 13-14 minutes into the hour long interview.)

Bubble logic: “Innovators, Imitators and then the Idiots” (20 minutes)

“Confidence in markets and institutions is like oxygen… when you have it you don’t think about it… but you can’t go 5 minutes without it.” (24 minutes)

“Beware of geeks bearing formulas!” (takes a shot at quants at 27 minutes)

Upper income people should pay more taxes (basically endorses Obama’s tax plan) (42 minutes)

“It is terrible that income from investments (capital gains) should be taxed less than income from labor.” (against regressive taxes) (44 minutes)

“If AIG had to unwind their derivatives book, it would have hit every institution in the world.” (50 minutes)

“The Fed structured the AIG deal very well. They are very likely to get their money back or more.” (51 minutes)

Written by infoproc

October 3, 2008 at 2:33 am

Simple question, complex answer

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A former physicist (but non-financier) writes:

I have a question, and who better to ask than you. …something isn’t adding up.

I keep hearing that mortgage defaults are what is bringing down many financial institutions, and the the default rate in some particularly bad mortgage pools is up to 50%. Because housing prices are down about 20%, financial institutions can still regain 80% of the value of those loans, no? Actually the real value is probably a bit better, as most loans will be partially paid off. At any rate, doesn’t this imply that even in the worst loan pools, there is only a total 10% loss. And most financial institutions will have some higher quality loan pools also, and stocks, etc. So the total effect is going to be smaller than 10%, unless financial institutions were all constructing some sort of horrible options based high risk bets on housing prices, but I doubt this would happen except in some risky hedge funds.

Is this reasoning correct? If so, I don’t understand how our system can be so fragile that a few percent drop would bring everyone down. Of course everyone holding a share of these funds will have a small portfolio dip, but this happens every few years anyway.

Your calculations are reasonably correct (see comments for more detail). So why the crisis?

1) Leverage. Many I-banks had 30:1 ratios, so a small movement in value of a subcomponent of their portfolio could wipe them out. It’s like a guy who puts 10% down on his house, who can lose everything if the price goes down by 10%. Of course this only matters if he is forced to sell, or, in the bank case, if shareholders and counterparties start losing confidence. This is happening simultaneously in financial markets due to the second factor…

2) Complexity. No one knows who is holding what, who has sold insurance (credit default swaps) to other parties and is on the hook, etc. So trust is gone and credit markets are paralyzed — no muni bond issuance, no short term loans to businesses, no car loans, etc.

The efficient functioning of our economy is built on trust — I have to trust that the grocer will give me food in exchange for a dollar bill, that I can get my money out of the bank, that my employer will pay me at the end of the month, that its customers will pay it, etc.

We are nearing a dangerous point. Confidence, once destroyed, is very hard to rebuild.

Relative to the size of our economy, the amount of money involved is not that great. If we had perfect information we could solve the whole problem with about $1 trillion. (About the cost of the Iraq war; not bad for a bubble that involved housing — our most valuable asset.)

Written by infoproc

October 2, 2008 at 4:18 pm

Historical vol

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Worried now? Graph from maoxian. Check these out.

Too bad I don’t have my vol trade on any more… I bought some vol back in 2004 or so (long-dated VIX options), which looks to have been near the bottom 🙂

Written by infoproc

October 1, 2008 at 10:50 pm

Meltdown links

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1) Leonard Lopate interview with Economist editor Greg Ip, formerly of the WSJ. (Scroll down the page to Financial Crisis: What Happens Next?). This is the best 12 minute summary of the current situation I have yet heard. Ip is consistently good at explaining this complicated subject in an accessible manner. If you have a friend who is confused about the credit crisis, have them listen to this interview. (Avoid Terri Gross and pals on this one… 😉

I have been listening to Leonard Lopate’s show for some time and I can tell his grasp of finance has increased dramatically in the last year or so (his strength is interviewing artists, writers, etc.). It’s yet another example of high-g at work. He knew almost nothing a year ago but now asks occasional perceptive questions. (But of course it doesn’t matter how smart our next President is!)

2) Mark Thoma discusses the pros and cons of mark to market accounting. To me it’s rather obvious that M2M accounting is exacerbating this crisis. It has introduced a very significant nonlinearity, both on the upside (bubble), and now in the collapse. If the market for mortgage assets has failed it is crazy to use it as a barometer for value. More discussion at WSJ.

3) This NYTimes Op-Ed written by a former theoretical physicist discusses agent-based simulation, behavioral economics and phase transitions — yes, in an Op-Ed! (Thanks again to reader STS for the pointer.)

Written by infoproc

October 1, 2008 at 7:43 pm

Why no bailout?

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Representatives in Congress received thousands of phone calls and emails from constituents against the bailout, which some wags have characterized as “no banker left behind” 🙂

We can trace this popular reaction against CEOs and Wall St. to growing income and wealth inequality. Ordinary people no longer feel they have a stake in the system. Their reaction may be irrational (even the poorest American has a big stake in the continued functioning of the economy), but it was certainly predictable.

Next spring, unlike last year, less than half of the Harvard graduating class will take jobs in finance. I guess that signals a top in the market 8-/

Related posts:

financier pay

all about the benjamins

a reallocation of human capital

a new class war

non-residential net worth

working class millionaires

Written by infoproc

September 30, 2008 at 2:48 pm